A new study suggests that the old saying about history repeating itself is absolutely true. In this case, history repeating itself pertains to none other than the topic on everyone’s minds— extinction. Researchers believe it’s taken 56 million years for earth to face another mass extinction that can occur in as little as 140 years.
The research, released last Wednesday and published in Geophysical Research Letters, compares conditions in the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) period with our planet’s present warming condition. Back in PETM days, carbon dioxide shot up, increasing Earth’s temperatures by 9 to 14 degrees. The tropical Atlantic heated up to approximately 97 degrees. Land and marine animals died. It took 150,000 years for the planet to recover.
Unfortunately for us, carbon dioxide emissions are rising ten times faster now than they did during the PETM. Back then, wildfires, volcanic activity and methane wafting from the seafloor and permafrost were the culprits. Today, it’s down to us. Last year, emissions in countries with advanced economies rose slightly after a five-year decline. At this rate, the study predicts Earth’s atmosphere will be comparable to the beginning of PETM in 140 years, reaching a peak in 259 years. The result? Mass extinction.
Philip Gingerich, the study’s author, did a literature review of previous studies on PETM and the rate of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere. Based on eight studies published between 2009 and 2018, he used models to project future emissions caused by humans. Gingerich is an emeritus professor in the University of Michigan’s earth sciences department. He directed the university’s Museum of Paleontology for nearly 30 years.
“[It’s] as if we are deliberately and efficiently manufacturing carbon for emission to the atmosphere at a rate that will soon have consequences comparable to major events long ago in earth history,” Gingerich told Earther.
As he states in his study, “A second PETM-scale global greenhouse warming event is on the horizon if we cannot lower anthropogenic carbon emission rates.”
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